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Decolonise How? | ‘We want to help you, but your government won’t let us.’

Global media outfits must rethink how they cover humanitarian crises.

A cartoon of a green lens that has "BIAS" written on it as it's taken off a video camera. Patrick Gathara/TNH

Covering natural calamities and the emergency responses they call forth isn’t an easy task. Reporters can be exposed to physical dangers and may have to navigate literal as well as ethical minefields. But this shouldn’t excuse reporting that misrepresents crises or that mischaracterises how the humanitarian system is meant to work.

It’s a tough beat. The humanitarian system is an unwieldy beast, a chimeric agglomeration of government agencies, non-governmental organisations, and private players, large and small, some governed by international agreements and others by their own set of codes, all held together by little more than spit and tape and a can-do attitude. For any journalist, how it all works is difficult to make sense of, even in the best of times. That difficulty is massively compounded in the crucible of an emergency, when all its parts are moving, rarely harmoniously, sometimes grinding up against each other.

It can be difficult to spot order amid the noise and haste, amid all the confusion and chaos, but if you look hard enough, there is a logic to the madness. But comprehending it is crucial for those who wish to explain it to the world.

According to a former member of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, international humanitarian law and UN resolutions “are the closest thing we have when it comes to political consensus by states and ‘common law’ on how to work together in an emergency”. Failure to appreciate this can lead to serious reporting failures.

In the aftermath of the terrible devastation wrought by a massive 6.8 magnitude earthquake that killed thousands and left many more homeless in remote villages in the High Atlas Mountains, global media attention quickly turned to the Moroccan government’s selective acceptance of offers of international help.

“Morocco’s reluctance to accept quake aid baffles foreign governments,” blared a headline in the Washington Post, noting that despite immediate offers of help from, according to French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, over 60 nations, which, the article stressed, included “France, Germany, Italy and the United States, along with the United Nations”, Morocco had only accepted search-and-rescue crews from four “friendly countries”, namely Britain, Qatar, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Despite the Moroccan Interior Ministry saying this was based on “needs of the field”, the announcement was apparently greeted with surprise in France and, according to the Post at least, “sparked speculation that a cooling in relations between Paris and Rabat over immigration and other issues had played a role”.

The New York Times, for its part, reported that anger in Morocco was “quietly growing against the government’s slow reaction and reluctance to accept foreign aid”, framing Moroccans' resorting to help their fellow countrymen as an act of subversion: “In a country where criticism of the king can herald serious consequences, perhaps the loudest expression of protest is action as people across Morocco come to help those in need.” In similar fashion. the Australian Broadcasting Corporation questioned why Morocco was not allowing “more international help”.

This framing raises several ethical questions. Why highlight specific offers of assistance from Europe and North America when similar offers from neighbouring Tunisia and Algeria had also been rebuffed? Given that even in the most severe humanitarian crises, immediate help comes from local and diaspora sources, why frame that as protest against the reluctance to accept some outside help?

As UK journalist Peter Beaumont noted in an article for The Guardian, “there is no escaping the fact that some of the criticisms levelled at Morocco carry a whiff of white saviour complex”. Moroccan journalist Samira Sitail described it as telling Moroccans: “‘We want to help you, but your government won’t let us’.”

Principles and standards

In 1991, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 46/182, which laid down the guiding principles for the global humanitarian system. Humanitarian assistance, the document says, “should be provided with the consent of the affected country and in principle on the basis of an appeal by the affected country”.

There’s no denying that many governments routinely prioritise their own interests above the welfare of their citizens. According to one account, after Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, the government’s “inability to appreciate the extent of the damage, and its failure to accept assistance from other states and international organisations, almost certainly aggravated the damage, leading to a death toll of at least 85,000”.

Countries, therefore, can legitimately face international criticism, including from the media, for refusing offers of help. A report by the UN’s International Law Commission, which set up a multi-year project to develop rules for international disaster relief in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the southeastern United States, and the Cyclone Nargis disaster, pointed to an increasing recognition of a country’s obligation to ask for international help when its domestic capacity is overwhelmed. And since few governments can cope with emergencies of the size and complexity of the Moroccan quake, international disaster response frameworks have been developed over decades of lived experience precisely to facilitate that.

However, the accusation that political (or other) considerations are undermining humanitarian exigencies isn’t one that should be speculatively or impulsively made. There may be merit to the argument that French teams would probably be more effective in a French-speaking country, or that it isn’t the arrival of coordinated search-and-rescue teams that generally causes logistical havoc and confusion – as opposed to the many times totally inappropriate aid has flooded in unsolicited from well-meaning NGOs and do-gooders. However, just being locked out isn’t necessarily a sign of malfeasance or incompetence, and it would require more rigorous reporting to establish the facts one way or another – a great idea to follow up.

The Moroccan government is certainly capable of determining what the needs of its people are. It has experience and resources, including an internationally accredited search-and-rescue team. And it was right to be concerned about everyone rushing in and causing logistical headaches, although it should also be noted that the non-governmental aid sector has developed a voluntary code, articulating Core Humanitarian Standards for covering all humanitarian action, including disaster relief efforts. Many international and national relief organisations, large and small, willingly submit themselves to the rigorous CHS accreditation procedures to demonstrate that they are working consistently with agreed standards.

Still, while the Moroccan government’s claims shouldn’t automatically be taken at face value, neither should they be dismissed out of hand. It’s undoubtedly right that the media highlighted criticisms of the government’s response, especially from those impacted by the quake. However, attributing – or at least linking – alleged failures to the government’s pickiness in accepting offers of aid was, at the very least, disingenuous.

Unintended consequences

Such reporting risks more than misrepresenting the truth. It does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is interpreted and understood within an existing ecosystem of narratives and ideas, one which responsible reporters and outlets must pay heed to.

It can reinforce harmful tropes about who is entitled to help out when such disasters occur, and invalidate local efforts to do so. By portraying societies experiencing disasters as incapable of accurately determining the help they should receive, it can encourage rogue actors and lead to wholly inappropriate and ultimately counterproductive interventions.

Furthermore, not doing your homework, failing to recognise and query prevalent tropes and stereotypes, and failing to check unconscious biases can leave media prey to propagandists.

For example, many of the world’s media, including media in Africa, have unquestioningly repeated the idea that the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered between Russia and Ukraine to keep the latter’s grain flowing, was about saving starving Africans. This is despite the fact that it was largely wealthy countries that benefited, with the UN admitting that the bulk of corn shipped under the deal was “essentially” going to Spain and China. As noted by Nigerian journalist Olatunji Olaigbe, “Africa has never really been the target consumer for Ukrainian grain” and only a small fraction of the less than 13% of exports under the deal that went to Africa was food aid to so-called troubled countries. While such facts don’t seem to be a problem for officials trafficking in well-worn stereotypes of emaciated African mothers trying to breastfeed starving kids, they should be for ethical journalists.

Controversies over attempts by countries to control the activities of international humanitarians are sadly nothing new and tend to erupt after every disaster.

In 2018, in the wake of restrictions on foreign aid workers by the Indonesian government after earthquakes and a tsunami devastated its Central Sulawesi province, The New Humanitarian reported on a growing challenge to long-held assumptions throughout the humanitarian sector. “International donors and big NGOs have grown used to automatically jumping in when a major disaster hits, marshalling resources, supplies, and a brigade of global staff – and at times overtaking or overwhelming governments and local aid responders,” the article noted. As countries “increasingly [exert] more control over disasters on their own soil”, it will push the global aid sector to rethink how disasters are handled and who may be best placed to respond. No less is required of journalists and media organisations.

Please send thoughts and critiques to [email protected].

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